Vibrant temples, beautiful architecture, warm people and the perfect destination for your next trip.
Nestled between the mighty Mekong River and the more picturesque tributary Nam Khan, this ancient capital is one of the region’s most charming cities. It is still unspoilt (for now) by mass tourism and broadly protected by its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. Luang Prabang seems to have side-stepped the issues of unchecked growth and construction faced by places such as Hanoi or Chiang Mai. It’s popular with tourists, but you can still amble the cobbled streets and feel like you’re in a different era. A rare gift for the 21st-century explorer!
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The Mekong is impressive in its vastness and its banks are dotted with traditional eateries. Head out on an early evening stroll until you stumble across something suitable. The picturesque Nam Khan captures most travellers’ hearts and life appears to have hardly changed in 50 years. In the dry season, stroll across the Bamboo Bridge and be transported back in time. Make a stop at the wonderful Dyen Sabai restaurant, which serves up excellent Laotian favourites, including the much-loved traditional barbecue known as sindad. It’s a great choice for families, though its idyllic setting also means it’s popular for couples.
If you’re marking a special occasion then Tamarind and L’Elephant are long-time favourites, both serving up beautiful local fare, with great service and a lovely setting. It’s also impossible to have a bad meal at The Great House, the stunning restaurant at the Rosewood Luang Prabang. Opt for the Royal Laotian Lunch for an epicurean journey back to when the city was a place of kings!
Local eatery Khaiphaen (named after the local river weed snack), serves up great food and gives back to the local community. The venture works with disadvantaged young people to help them get a head start in the hospitality industry. A good meal and a good cause!
Families on a budget should try the Elephant Boutique Hotel, which has the benefits of a hostel but the cleanliness and amenities of something more upmarket. The owners are helpful, friendly and serve up a hearty breakfast. It’s not in the heritage zone, but it is less than a ten-minute walk to all the key locations.
If you can, it really is lovely to stay in the Old Town. Le Bougainvillier is an ideal option situated right amongst it all – plus the morning market is just by the front gates! Rooms are basic but well kept and there’s a lovely garden. Breakfast is vast and excellent.
Once a royal residence, Satri House is now an artfully crafted hotel. It perfectly mixes French colonial architecture with South East Asian interior design. There’s a library, lily ponds, lovely gardens and a small bar (perfect for when the family needs some downtime). It’s around a 15-minute walk from the main attractions or an easy tuk-tuk ride.
For a little slice of history right in the heart of the old town, book into the Victoria Xiengthong Palace. It was the last residence of the Lao royal family and is set perfectly amongst the UNESCO World Heritage-listed temples that Luang Prabang is famous for. Rooms are spacious, the service is wonderful and you’ll love having your breakfast overlooking the Mekong River.
Perfect for people watching, Tangor bar and restaurant offers streetside seating. Order a cocktail (or three) and simply watch the world go by. Its food menu is also excellent, so linger a little longer and enjoy! To top it off it’s very family friendly and makes for a great night out with the kids.
525 Cocktails & Tapas is a ridiculously stylish spot where the tapas is inventive (think buffalo meat sliders) and the drinks creative. The Sabaidee Laos is a must try! Every effort has been made to use locally-sourced ingredients where possible so you can expect fresh Lao flavours.
Wine lovers should head to Chez Matt. You can soak up the work of an array of Asian artists as well as glasses and bottles of excellent red wine.
The last stop of any Luang Prabang night out should be the wonderful Icon Klub, which feels a little like stumbling into a dinner party that’s started to get out of control! You never know where the night may take you once you enter, but there will be laughing, singing, drinking and new friendships formed along the way.
You and the family will love simply wandering the charming UNESCO heritage area of Luang Prabang. One of the real joys of the Old Town is to simply lose yourself in the streets. Every turn throws up a cute cafe, a striking colourful house, or a picturesque scene. Monks amble among fishermen and tourists, gorgeous red and pink Bougainvillier dot the town, and the local people are very welcoming.
Foodies and families alike should make an early start to visit the morning market. Local and regional producers offer up a kaleidoscope of textiles, fruits, vegetables and unusual Laotian delicacies – from toads and crickets, to catfish and pigs heads! There’s no hard sell and it is a rather vivid way of introducing global cuisine to children or the uninitiated.
No trip to Luang Prabang is complete without a visit to the Royal Palace. Here you can explore Laos’ rich history, from its time as a royal capital, to being a jewel in French Indochina all the way through to the 1975 Communist revolution. If you’re a temple buff then Wat Mai, sits just next door, while the impressive Wat Xieng Thong is on the edge of town. Both amazingly survived the Chinese and French invasions, as well as the Civil War.
A sunset Mount Phousi hike is considered a vital part of any Luang Prabang visit, but don’t be fooled by the well-angled Instagram pictures making it look quiet – everyone else also has the same idea! There’s no doubt that on a clear day the town looks magical, and the sky almost mystical, but if you’re an early riser, the hike is just as lovely (and more peaceful) early in the morning. Our pick is to enjoy the sunset on the riverbanks or on a cruise.
The monks collecting their morning alms might be an iconic image of Luang Prabang, but this is one to avoid. The deeply spiritual act started as monks would collect donations of rice from townsfolk. Now it’s become a bit of tourist circus. If you must go, choose a quiet street and watch from a respectable distance.
The night market is lovely to stroll through on your way to dinner, but for souvenirs is a bit hit and miss. Seek out the “Made in Laos” label to avoid cheap imitations.
Make a morning trip to the Kuang Si Waterfalls. Walk all the way to the top to see the full waterfall first. You’ll know you’re there when you see the viewing platform and the 60-metre high falls. Small cascades form pools perfect for a refreshing dip and you can pick your favourite on the way back down. The water is chilly and do be careful with young kids, as they’ll need to be closely supervised.
As you follow the trail, the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre, run by Free the Bears, is the first thing you pass. Bears are highly prized on the black market for their organs which are used in traditional medicine. This little facility is worth a visit on its own so it’s an added bonus to combine it with a visit to the waterfalls. While it isn’t big, Free the Bears is doing some great work with the limited facilities and funding it has.
Leave the waterfalls before lunchtime (the crowds can spoil this stunning spot) and take the kids to the Butterfly Park, right next door! It does great food here so be sure to buy the combined lunch and entry ticket for 65,000 kip ($59). You’ll be treated to beautifully manicured gardens and of course, lots and lots of butterflies!
Adventurous older kids and teens might prefer to get active on one of the many, scenic one-day hikes around Luang Prabang. If you are reasonably fit, the Tiger Trail offers a range of excellent treks, taking you across the Nam Khan river into villages that seem almost untouched by the modern world.
Once hailed as the “Land of a Million Elephants” today there are only around 1,000 left in the wild! Illegal logging, export and poaching mean the population is plummeting and visiting sanctuaries is the only certain way to see them. Environmentalists agree, avoid any place that offers elephant riding or performances. However, if you do want to see these gentle giants there are some good options.
The stand out option for the ethical traveller is the MandaLao camp, which offers an array of options to suit abilities and needs. I recommend the half-day “Into the Wild” hike where you can walk into the jungle with the elephants. It is suitable for children, though parents should be fit enough that they can carry them at some points just in case (little legs do get tired easily!). What sets MandaLao apart is that the elephants are not there for entertainment purposes. Visitors are encouraged to simply enjoy observing these animals act almost as they would do in the wild.
Laotian cuisine has finally reached a global audience and there are many cooking classes around the city to choose from. Almost all the big name hotels and restaurants offer courses of some form, though Tamarind’s is probably the most well known. As an added bonus it has a lush waterside location on the rural outskirts of town.
Textile fanatics will want to visit the Ock Pop Tok to browse the beautiful hand-woven materials made by villagers from across the region. If you’re keen to learn more they have a lovely centre out of town where you can learn the craft.
Backstreet Academy is fantastic for those that like to plan ahead. It has so many courses that put you in touch with local tradesfolk, opening up a hidden world of adventure. Options include crossbow crafting, batik, weaving and cooking with the Hmong tribespeople. There’s even an option to spend the day as a Laotian Warrior learning how to make knives, bows and bird-traps, as well as how to survive in the jungle.
If you and the family are feeling weary from all the sightseeing, you can always retreat to the spa! There are plenty of affordable options offering massages all around town.
Featured image courtesy of Getty, image 1 courtesy of Rosewood Hotels, image 2 courtesy of Satri Hotel, image 3 courtesy of Tangor Bar, image 4 courtesy of Getty, image 5 courtesy of Jessica Mizzi